Thursday, March 31, 2016

Prelude to The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

I finished Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake and am in the middle of writing about it for my next Black Gate post. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it's about Buccmaster of Holland, a wealthy farmer from Lincolnshire, who takes to the fens and woods as a green man bent on fighting the Norman conquerors.  He is by turns a liar, a patriot, a guerilla, and a murderer, and Kingsnorth's writing makes him the most riveting narrator I've read of late. It's also one of the most penetrating  psychological studies of a man under devastating pressure.

Saxon thegns
Buccmaster tells his own story in an invented vernacular Kingsnorth calls a shadow language. It's built on Old and contemporary English and doesn't allow words without pre-Norman origins or letters not in Old English, like K and Q. It's tough to read for the first page or two, but soon, like me, you'll probably find yourself reading it out loud, letting the odd rhythm overtake you as it becomes more natural. Slowly, the language permeates you, letting you see the world from Buccmaster's ancient perspective, not your own.

Saxon England is more violent, from hearth and home up to national affairs. People are also closer than us to the natural world as most people make their livings off it, most as farmers, others as fishermen or charcoal burners or hunters.

large Saxon house
One of the major themes Buccmaster hits on again and again, is of the past being a better time than the present. The near past, just prior to the Norman invasion was better because then he was rich and locally important. He had men who owed him service each week and he held a seat on the wapentake (an administrative body).

The deeper past, half a millennium back, when the Saxons first arrived, was better because men were bolder and held true to the old ways, following Wodan and his ilk, not Christ. Now all is lost. 

Battle of Hastings
The thing is, the past Buccmaster longs for is a mythical one with more roots in legend than reality. Reading background material for my review, I've come to learn the reality of the Saxon settlement of England and the subsequent birth of England is far more complex than I used to believe. Recent studies of English DNA show that the old idea that the native Britons were driven into Wales and Cornwall and supplanted by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, are not wholly accurate.

Germanic DNA only composes 25% to 40% of the average white Briton's genetic makeup. The Romans and the Danes seem to have come purely as conquerors, leaving next to no genetic traces among contemporary Britons. The northern Welsh seem to be the "purest" remnants of the pre-Saxon, Celtic population, while the rest of the Celts are more different from each other than they are from the English. 

The present theory is that it was in the best interest of conquered Britons to take up the habits and culture of the invading Germans. The weregild for a murdered Briton was much less than that of a German. There seem to have been privileges attached to speaking German instead of Brittonic.  

Mitochondrial evidence shows that the Celtic DNA is largely maternal while the German paternal. This had led some to theorize a sexual apartheid existed in early England, leaving British men out in the cold when it came to reproduction. 

Researchers also expected to find a similar genetic heritage among the Celts of Britain, the Cornish, Welsh, Scots, and Irish. They didn't.

Prof Mark Robinson, an archaeologist who works with Prof Donnelly at Oxford University, said he was "very surprised" that Celtic groups in Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland had such different genetic patterns.
"I had assumed at the very early stages of the project that there was going to be this uniform Celtic fringe extending from Cornwall through to Wales into Scotland. And this has very definitely not been the case," he told BBC News.
The researchers did see distinct genetic groups within those regions but those groups were quite different from each other, according to Prof Donnelly.
"Although people from Cornwall have a Celtic heritage, genetically they are much, much more similar to the people elsewhere in England than they are to the Welsh for example," said Prof Donnelly.
"People in South Wales are also quite different genetically to people in north Wales, who are both different in turn to the Scots. We did not find a single genetic group corresponding to the Celtic traditions in the western fringes of Britain."
from the BBC 

The history of Britain through 1066 is one of invasions and cultural conquest. The original stone age people were conquered by bronze-using tribes from the West (the subject of Treece's The Golden Strangers). The Celts did the same thing when they arrived. By the time Caesar landed in Britain, everyone on the island was a Celt. The Germans did the same thing in turn. That the Normans, themselves descendants of Vikings who'd invaded northern France, did it is no surprise. 
Normans on the beach

Several reviews of The Wake call it a post-apocalyptic story. To an extent, it is. Saxon society, flawed as it might look to us, was stable, with each man knowing his place in it. When it's destroyed, all Hell is let loose. Men like Buccmaster, who refuse to submit, lose everything. The book gives us hints of the devastation caused by William during the Harrowing of the North. Buccmaster and his band skulking across the landscape spying on their Norman conquerors is reminiscent of H.G. Wells' narrator watching the Martians impose their will on England. The Saxons, though, don't get saved. 

The Wake is a book that I know I will reread over the coming years. It is a powerful meditation on identity and cultural loss. Kingsnorth's shadow language is something, I suspect, needs to be immersed in again and again to be truly appreciated. It's a brilliant book that's worthy of all the praise and accolades given it. If you haven't read it yet, I strongly recommend you do.


  1. Excellent post

    Jim Cornelius

  2. I've got this book sitting on the top of the physical TBR pile. I read the first few pages. I loved it, but I also realized that I'm probably going to have to wait until classes are finished for the semester and grades turned in before I can give it the attention it deserves.

    1. It'll be worth the wait. I think I'll read the Treece soon for another take on a similar event

    2. Sorry to hijack your post here, but this will only take a minute. I just wanted to thank you. After finding your blog about a year ago I've enjoyed a lot of the reviews and other sundry posts you've put up. As a result I also just started looking over at Black Gate at your reviews over there, and the other night I decided to look in at Swords and Sorcery and I'm officially hooked.
      I read the stories in Issue #50 and enjoyed the one so much by Davide Mana that I purchased his kindle ebooks from Amazon. I've already started going through the archives over there and I'm going to start working my way through the back issues.
      The thing I've missed the most in Sword & Sorcery over the years is, simply, that everybody does novels, and frankly I've always been a short story guy.
      So, as I said above, thanks again for the unexpected and somewhat twisted path to an enjoyable way for me get back into an old pastime.

    3. Hijacking, are you kidding? Thanks is what I've got to say to you. Yeah, the predominance of novels, especially monster doorstoppers has made modern S&S less fun. I don't hate long novels, but most don't merit the length. Whatver, thanks for reading and I'm glad your enjoying it.